The decision to serve lobsters at President Biden’s first White House state dinner is steaming folks in Maine, who say the president is enjoying the delicacy while his administration regulates lobstermen out of business.
Rep. Jared Golden, Maine Democrat, said Mr. Biden hasn’t kept his campaign promise to protect lobstermen’s livelihood. Despite that, 200 butter-poached Maine lobsters were on the menu Thursday night as the president and first lady Jill Biden hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, for the glittering state dinner.
“If the Biden White House can prioritize purchasing 200 Maine lobsters for a fancy dinner, @POTUS should also take the time to meet with the Maine lobstermen his administration is currently regulating out of business,” Mr. Golden tweeted.
Maine’s $1-billion-a-year lobster industry and its elected officials are angry about the administration’s move to require new lobster gear and fewer vertical fishing lines in the water, part of an effort to protect right whales from becoming entangled. A federal judge last month ordered a two-year extension before the regulations take effect. Lobstermen say the legal battle has left them in limbo.
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative nevertheless said it is “proud that the honored guests of [the] White House State Dinner are enjoying the delicious taste of Maine Lobster.”
“The Maine Lobster industry has long been an integral part of culinary tradition and the hardworking heritage of Maine,” the group said in a statement Thursday. “We hope diners around the globe are inspired by [the dinner] preparation, and we encourage them to support the fishery by choosing Maine Lobster throughout the holiday season.”
Environmental groups are criticizing Mr. Biden for a different reason. They say nobody should be eating Maine lobsters.
“The lobster on the White House menu comes from a fishery with well-documented risks to the remaining 340 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales that are often entangled in fishing gear,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director of the international advocacy group Oceana. “Smarter choices would include a menu with wild gulf shrimp or Atlantic scallops from U.S. fisheries that have tackled endangered species problems head-on and developed effective ways to minimize risk. Until President Biden and the National Marine Fisheries Service takes their responsibility for managing our oceans seriously and put proven, effective safeguards in place to minimize the risk of entangling whales, the lobster on their menu cannot be considered sustainable by any definition.”
Some retailers, including Whole Foods, have removed lobster from their inventory after the California-based Seafood Watch, citing concerns about risks to whales, decided last summer to add American and Canadian lobster fisheries to its “red list” of species to avoid.
The London-based Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit group that sets sustainability standards for commercial fishing, has suspended a certification it awarded to Maine’s lobster industry over concerns about risks to whales. The suspension of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s certificate will go into effect on Dec. 15.
The council said the danger that North Atlantic right whales face from entanglement in fishing gear is a “serious and tragic situation” of “grave concern to all those involved in the fishing industry.”
Maine’s elected leaders, including Mr. Golden, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins and independent Sen. Angus S. King Jr., have denounced the shunning of their state’s lobster industry.
“We are disappointed by Whole Foods’ decision and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the lobster industry’s certificate of sustainability continues to harm the livelihoods of hardworking men and women up and down Maine’s coast,” they said in a statement.
Sonny Beal, a third-generation lobsterman in Beals Island, Maine, said the decisions by the Marine Stewardship Council and Whole Foods “is both frustrating and heartbreaking.”
“I take immense pride in the work our industry does to safely, sustainably harvest lobster, and I too want to protect our legacy and what we’ll be able to pass down to our children,” he said. “I consider us all stewards of our ocean, especially after many decades of working on the water and learning how to evolve our fishery to conserve the source and protect cohabitating species like the right whales, so it is disappointing to feel so misunderstood in the face of these decisions.”
Mr. Golden told Mr. Biden in a letter in October, before the lawmaker’s reelection: “You cannot espouse being a president for working people while simultaneously overseeing the destruction of an entire blue-collar fishery and its community’s heritage and way of life. I implore you to recognize and oppose these proposed right whale conservation measures and to meet with Maine’s congressional delegation as well as leaders of the lobster community to find common sense solutions to ensure that Maine’s lobster and fishing industries and the right whales will survive for generations.”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association said the last known case of a whale getting entangled in Maine lobster gear was more than 17 years ago, and that whale survived. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department, said 50 right whales have died since 2017 after becoming entangled in fishing gear, but Maine lobstermen say none of those examples was their fault.
The federal government also has reinstated the closure of a 967-square-mile federal fishing area from October to January and required “weak links” in the rope that fishermen say could snap under heavy storm swells, let alone from a whale.
Judge William J. Kayatta Jr. of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a decision against the lobster industry last summer that the federal government was acting within its authority to regulate the lobstermen.
“While there are serious stakes on both sides, Congress has placed its thumb on the scales for whales,” the judge wrote.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is suing the Biden administration to stop what it calls “burdensome federal regulations” that threaten to end Maine’s lobster industry. The group is concerned about the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 10-year whale plan, released last year, which it said “requires the Maine lobster fishery to reduce its already minimal risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale by 98 percent.”
“This is an unachievable goal, and the industry could not survive,” the group said in a statement. “The MLA is suing the federal government to stop this plan, and is asking the court to fix it using accurate science so that we can save right whales without sacrificing the lobster fishery and Maine’s lobstering heritage.”
While a vital U.S. fishing industry is endangered, Mr. Macron and France got better news this week about a staple of the French diet. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization added the baguette — French bread — to the list of items considered worthy of preservation as “intangible cultural heritage.”
The French Culture Ministry took six years to amass the documentation. The government urged the addition of baguettes and the methods of baking them to the heritage preservation list as a way to aid the ailing fortunes of the country’s traditional bakeries.
“It is important that such craft knowledge and social practices can continue to exist in the future,” UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, a former French culture minister, told The Associated Press.
• Brad Matthews contributed to this report.